The Death of Adele Biton and The New York Times’ Justification of Lopsided Reporting

In March 2013, three-year-old Adele Biton was travelling with her two sisters in a car driven by their mother, when a Palestinian rock-throwing attack caused the car to slam into a truck ahead. Two of the girls suffered moderate wounds, while Adele was left in critical condition with serious neurological injuries. She underwent extensive treatment in acute and rehabilitation care facilities, but never fully recovered.

Nearly two years later, on Feb. 17, 2015, the pre-schooler died as a result of complications of pneumonia. Her mother told the Israeli newspaperYediot Aharonot that there was no doubt that Adele’s illness was part of the progression of her neurological injuries “that complicated her ability to cope with medical issues.”

The following day, Voice of Israel’s Josh Hasten interviewed New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi Rudoren. Asked what she knew about Adele, Rudoren responded:

In any society, I suppose, and certainly here, there are certain individual cases among the victims who become somewhat iconic and I think Adele was one of those. She was two years old, critically injured, spent more than a year, maybe a year and a half, in rehab. Many, many articles were written about her. Her parents, her family, captured Israeli attention, so I was aware of that. Obviously, a two-year-old girl critically injured in the conflict is heart-tugging for any observer and because of that, she had become somewhat iconic. That’s why we wrote a brief item about her death.

But it was not until after Adele had succumbed to her illness that Jodi Rudoren referred to Adele and the stone throwing attack that had maimed her. The reporter wrote about Adele’s death in a 169-word “world briefing” that appeared only in the newspaper’s online edition.

Indeed, in a more than 1900-word feature article about Palestinian stone throwers that was published both online (“In a West Bank Culture of Conflict, Boys Wield the Weapon at Hand“) and prominently on the front page of the print edition (“My Hobby is Throwing Stones,” Aug. 5, 2013), Jodi found no room to mention the attack that had critically injured Adele. Nor did she mention an earlier stone throwing attack that had crushed the skull of 5-year-old Yehuda Shoham, an only child. And her only mention of a similar attack that resulted in the deaths of a young father and his infant son, Asher and Yonatan Palmer, was in passing, presented as hearsay about unnamed victims.

Instead the reporter devoted her feature piece to Palestinian stone throwers’ justifications for, and expressions of pride in, their actions, as well as their hardship in being arrested by Israeli police for these activities. At the time, CAMERA posted a sharp media critique about the article, entitled “The New York Times Romanticizes Palestinian Stone Throwers and Ignores Their Victims.” In it, Rudoren was criticized for explaining the stone throwing by Palestinians as “pushback against Israel,” a “rite of passage,” and an “honored act of defiance” while downplaying the impact of this Palestinian “hobby” on its Israeli victims. The critique pointed out that while the reporter emphasized “the futility of stones bouncing off armored vehicles,” and interviewed one Israeli who had been frightened but uninjured by stone-throwing attacks, she provided almost no information about the deadlier and more injurious results of such attacks.

In the Voice of Israel interview, host Josh Hasten brought up CAMERA’s criticism of Rudoren’s feature. The reporter defended and justified her treatment of the subject matter, dismissing her critics out of hand. According to Rudoren, CAMERA was “not criticizing or scrutinizing or reviewing coverage based on any journalistic values. They’re doing it based on a scorecard of what they think makes their side look good or bad. It’s not based on the kind of building blocks of mainstream journalism that is where our coverage comes from and that most of our vast global readership needs from us.”

But it should be obvious to anyone who claims to understand the “building blocks of journalism” that to downplay and give such short shrift to the catastrophic and sometimes fatal results of stone-throwing is to deprive readers of the context necessary to understand the conflict. Neither Rudoren nor The New York Times provided readers with a parallel feature story about the impact of Palestinian stone throwing on their Israeli victims. So what Rudoren left readers with — what she apparently felt they “needed” — was a one-sided piece about Palestinian victims “provoked by the situation,” and forced into a “futile” hobby (of throwing stones), only to be arrested and incarcerated by fierce Israeli soldiers.

Rudoren’s justification for this lopsided reporting was to claim she was on a “journalistic mission” whose agenda was “to unpack the caricature of Palestinian stone-throwers.” To that end, she asserted, the story “really wasn’t about their victims.”
“Not every story looks at everybody in equal depth because that’s just not how journalism works and it doesn’t need to be that way,” Rudoren declared. But how can a journalist tell the story about stone throwing without thoroughly exploring the consequences? Without any comparative story about the Israeli victims, those victims remained voiceless, their side of the story left untold. Even while she acknowledged that “it was important to make sure that it was clear that people did get killed and that there were victims,” Rudoren justified the virtual absence of this information from her article, apparently deeming her fleeting hearsay reference to two anonymous fatalities sufficient.

As to the article’s misleading implication that the “situation” that provokes Palestinian stone-throwers is one of Israel’s making, Rudoren ignored the fact that hate rhetoric and incitement against Israelis is also a significant factor in encouraging the stone throwers. Nowhere in the article does she even hint at the atmosphere of incitement by Palestinian leaders to attack Israelis by any means.

This type of reporting is characteristic of Rudoren’s “journalistic values.” She routinely conceals relevant information, selectively quotes or cites those whose perspective she agrees with, while downplaying, ignoring or misrepresenting the viewpoints of those with whom she disagrees. In news articles, she tends to cast aspersions on or use pejoratives to discredit those with whom she disagrees. (See, for example, “A Guide to NYT Advocacy Journalism: Focus on Jodi Rudoren.”) And she uses these same tactics in dealing with legitimate criticism of her reporting. Instead of directly addressing the specific complaints about her reporting, she dismisses her critics with wholesale contempt. Those cri
ticizing her articles, she argues, are just checking off a list “of who’s winning the story.” Here, too, Rudoren misrepresents. What CAMERA and many critics of The New York Times demand is that both sides’ perspectives be given voice — something the Society of Professional Journalists urges, but which Rudoren is apparently unwilling to do.

The Society of Professional Journalist’s code of ethics calls on journalists, among other things, to recognize their own cultural values and avoid imposing them on readers, to distinguish between advocacy and news reporting, and to give voice to the voiceless. In addition, it urges journalists to be accountable to their readers, clarify and explain news coverage, invite dialogue and encourage readers to voice their grievances about news reporting. 

Many prominent and respected journalists adhere to this code, even when criticized. And they are better journalists for it. But as long as Rudoren continues to wear blinders, block her ears, and insist that it is not necessary to explore both sides of a conflict in equal depth, non-partisan readers who want to genuinely learn about the situation fully and fairly should continue to avoid the New York Times and its partisan Jerusalem bureau chief.

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